Attached: To Their Screens?

Attachment is a necessity for human life – across the lifespan. Attachment is connection and compassion, it is the relationships with people you trust and who care about you. This blog post explores how screens (including our own) interfere with attachment behaviours and as such can leave children and young people in an attachment void, increasing their peer orientation and peer attachments. Physician Dr. Gabor Maté and Clinical Psychologist Gordon Neufield help put a context around what is biologically required for children and young people, to attach and the challenges for parents “in the digital age”. 

Screens and our reliance on them is one of parents, teachers and all who love and care for children and young people’s biggest concern for them. We are concerned by what our young people tell us, we are concerned by what we see on Netflix (Social Dilemma anyone?), we notice it in ourselves and our addictions to screens, work and social media. We are most concerned by the behavior changes we notice. Parents and professionals are concerned about increased addictive behavior, increased mental health concerns (Anxiety, Depression, suicidality), and decreased adult and intergenerational connection and influence in their young person’s life, and the reality is – it is complex. There is a tremendous amount we do not know about the brain, brain development, there is luck, genetics, the environment, the peer group, maturational factors, school, sibling order; the list could go on. However, we can take an approach of trying to understand, with some empathy and nuance, why do children and young people sometimes find themselves in situations where they are practically strangers to the people who care deeply about them and want to connect, and they are overly connected to their peers – much of which is online?

There is a never-ending round of discussion in any parenting group you would care to join on how, when, and what media we should allow access to for our children. Furthermore, this may not be solely a family decision – children may be required to have a device for school, parents may feel it is important to have a phone for safety and/ or accessibility. It is very much a case that the “horse” has well and truly bolted from the barn – so how can we help make it safer for children and young people, for their brains, their minds, and their emerging sense of self?

Here is a typical parental concern you may hear at any gathering of parents with adolescents: “I don’t feel as though I know them at all anymore”, “they come home from school (or spend the day during home learning) and then they are in their room, are on their phone/ laptop/ device – chatting, doing homework, YouTube, online gaming from the minute they get home until they go to bed. I barely see them for dinner.” These struggles have been normalized through our culture – however, my sense is that it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, the young people themselves do not like either. They are uncomfortable, scared, lost, and confused and that is why they turn to the screens in a never-ending loop of attempting to connect, to feel safe, and to sometimes numb the painful feelings they are experiencing.

But first – what is the problem if an adolescent is overly focussed on their peers? The problem is that with the never-ending access to screens and expectations young people have of themselves to be constantly available (via Snapchat, Discord, Messenger, etc.) that this can interfere with their primary caregiver attachments and relationships.  Certainly, teens are empathetic, they are kind and thoughtful, they can be fun, delightful, interesting, and intelligent. They however still need an adult, a secure safe trusted caregiver who has wisdom through context, who loves and values them unconditionally, who can help them problem solve, who they are not overly reliant on for their emerging ego development. In other words – we all can benefit from peer relationships, but for a child and a young person, this can become mutually exclusive to the adult caregiver attachment. If at the exact moment when our teenagers need to be held gently, to be contained and celebrated – if they are only left with a culture of fear of exclusion, desperate needs to fit in, to be fulfilling their attachment instinct with their peers rather than a parent or trusted caregiver then we are creating environments that are unsafe for them.

What can we do?

1.) Prioritize family time. Dr. Gordon Neufeld believes that children spend plenty of time with their peers at school. Time outside of school and work (holidays, weekends, etc.) need not to be always socializing with peers. This helps them stay attached to the family and caregivers.

2.) Proximity and connection with all our senses. This means that we adults need to be physically and emotionally available. We as caregivers need to be aware of our own divided attention and screen usage, turn our full attention to them, show and develop an interest in what interests them.

3.) Have shared experiences, both on and off screens. Cultural practices and rites of passage are important for adolescents, it can help anchor them with roots to the community and support emerging identity development.

Gabor Mate and Gordon Neufuld have many resources including “Hold Onto Your Kids” and various lecture series for parents and professionals. 

Written by:
Veronica McKibbin
Counsellor
SACAC Counselling


References:
Gordon Neufeld: https://neufeldinstitute.org/
Dr. Gabor Maté : https://drgabormate.com/

Secure attachment and Resilience

It has often said that there is no manual for childrearing – and nothing could be both further from the truth and yet so true at the same time. The inundation of parenting advice today is saturating. Finding the way through early parenting years can be thrilling, equally terrifying and certainly life changing. Caregivers for the most part, will come into a greater confidence and trust in their child and their ability to manage tough times. However, there will be struggles and difficulties, life and parenting is not straightforward. During these times parents and caregivers will often consult the great body of literature, friends, family or a therapist. Wading through the copious literature and opinions can be intimidating, piecemeal and reactive. It can be helpful at these times to go back to the basics, reviewing what we know is helpful across the lifespan. Pioneered by Mary Ainsworth’s work on attachment styles, copious research now supports the concept that secure attachment is the single most important fundamental to child development (Siegel and Bryson, 2020).

Secure attachment is a phrase that potentially evokes images of monkey experiments, classic studies into the impact of parental engagement (the “still face” experiments) or perhaps of even children in orphanages. In terms of neurodevelopment, secure attachment is the pillar of brain development that allows a child to be in a physiological state that is ready for learning. Without perceived safety, the mind of the child is perpetually engaged in threat reduction and survival. The brain can be thought of in the most simplistic terms as an association machine, and secure attachment means that the brain will expect that the world will be open to receive them in a safe, logical and positive way.

Secure attachment is the culmination of experiences that are “good enough”, that are safe and soothing for the baby and child.  It is a process whereby the child is safe, seen and soothed repeatedly (Siegel and Bryson, 2020). It is this predictable cause and effect that creates pathways of neurobiological “wiring”.  It is not about always being a “perfect” caregiver, it is the long and slow process of being good enough (Winnicott). A brain that has not had the opportunity to wire with secure attachment will look very different to a securely attached brain. In particular, the amygdala, frontal and prefrontal cortex develop in a structurally different way. However, it is not so much in the brain scans that this is evidenced, but in how the child copes relationally and how they develop their sense of self in the world as a person. As an individual who can manage difficulties, who can be self determined and self confident, as a person who has a positive impact on those around them, and who can manage interpersonal difficulties as they arise. Naturally, as the child wants to explore they engage more with those in the community or school settings, the securely attached child is able to take with them into the world the idea of the “secure base”. This is an internal mechanism of the relational safety the child has developed and acts like an “on-board puncture repair kit”. It shows up in the way the child engages in positive self talk, the way they are willing to take appropriate risks, and through the way they reconnect with caregivers and others when relational difficulties or conflict arise.

Secure attachment can also be facilitated and enhanced as children grow. It is not something that is finished with after the child becomes an adolescent. Indeed the “showing up”, being attuned, holding safe boundaries and being able to support an adolescent during this intense period of brain development is, I believe just as crucial, and at times overlooked in the parenting literature. My next blog post will explore this in greater detail.

  • Daniel Hughes (2006), Building the Bonds of Attachment, Jason Aronson
  • Kenneth Ginsburg (2015), Building Resilience in Children and Teens, American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson (2020), The Power of Showing Up, Ballantine Books

Written by:
Veronica McKibbin
Counsellor / Child and Family Therapist

Understanding Your Attachment Style in Romantic Relationships


Have you ever wondered about why you act the way you do in your romantic relationships? Or how you have certain expectations of how your romantic partner is meant to behave or even how you are to behave and be in your own romantic relationships?

Attachment theory posits that our beliefs and expectation of ourselves and others, and the ways we behave in close relationships are based on our repeated interactions with caregivers growing up. These beliefs and expectations held are called attachment (or internal working) models, and how these individual differences in our attachment models manifest in our behaviours, attachment styles. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth were the first to classify three attachment styles of Secure, Anxious-ambivalent and Avoidant, and researchers since have applied Attachment theory to adult romantic relationships and found that we could similarly classify our romantic relationships by these styles!  In fact, researchers have demonstrated the presence of four styles that map on the two dimensions of Anxiety (anxiety and vigilance over abandonment and fear) and Avoidance (avoidance of intimacy and discomfort with closeness or reliance on others).

How might these attachment styles manifest in your romantic relationship you may ask- Well, they can be broadly classified like this:

Secure: Secure attachment styles have a positive view of self and a positive view others. They see themselves as worthy and deserving of love, and others as available and responsive if they required help or were in need. They feel safe enough in their relationships to be open and vulnerable, yet secure enough within the relationship to know that they and their partners can weather any ‘storms’ together. 

Some common relationship behaviours that may manifest include: Comfort with asking for help without impacting self-esteem, trusting of others without assuming the worst of their partner even in stressful situations (i.e., having dinner with an attractive co-worker), good conflict management skills and willingness to work on relationship issues together, able to respect, and maintain a balance between autonomy and interdependence.   

Preoccupied: Preoccupied attachment styles have a negative view of the self and positive view of others. There is a prevailing fear of abandonment and the sense of the self as ‘not good enough’ to maintain the interest of the romantic partner who will exit the relationship once they find someone else ‘worthy of them’. Yet preoccupied individuals also tend to idealise the romantic partner and to hold them often to too-high expectations in the romantic relationship.

Some common relationship behaviours that may manifest include: Mind-reading and repeated questioning of your partner’s ‘actual’ intent, Catastrophising the worst of the relationship and your partner, repeated reassurance-seeking but it’s never enough, hypervigilance in relationships leading to frequent comparisons against potential ‘love rivals’ and intense but unnecessary jealousy

Dismissing: Dismissing attachment styles tend to have a positive view of the self and a negative view of others. There is a tendency to rely only on the self, me, myself and I, and to view intimacy and closeness with others as a ‘weakness’ and less desirable. Dismissing individuals tend to minimize being close to others and not to share when they are experiencing difficulties (emotional especially).

Some common relationship behaviours that may manifest include: Engaging in more casual or non-committed relationships, or if in a relationship, avoiding physical closeness or expressions of vulnerability, mentally checking out when your romantic partner starts to talk about their (and your) emotions, or being vague when discussing future (sometimes even weekend) plans.

Fearful: Fearful attachment styles have a negative view of self and a negative view of others. They feel that they themselves are not good enough and are reliant on external approval and others for reassurances. Yet they simultaneously believe that others will hurt or abandon them in some way, and cannot be trusted. Fearful individuals therefore can be avoidant of intimacy and self-disclosure, and demonstrate reluctance to be attached to someone else especially in the beginning stages.

Some common relationship behaviours that may manifest include: Vacillation between being close and being distant in the relationship; being overprotective of one’s behaviours and thoughts, and react badly to criticism; being overly-passive or aggressive in the relationship, and finding it difficult to trust others.

That said, attachment styles are not immutable, and are continually open to revision and change both within and across our romantic relationships. Rather, knowing more about our attachment styles allow us the opportunity to begin to consciously change the way we think about and behave in our romantic relationships.

Be aware: Be mindful of your own thoughts and behaviours in your interactions with your romantic partner. Notice your own reactions to actions and words spoken by your romantic partner and mentally ask yourself, “Why am I reacting this way to what my partner is saying/ doing? ”, “What does this say about my expectations and behaviours in my romantic relationship?”. Try to be as open and non-judgmental about your thoughts and behaviours and document them down so that you can begin to identify triggers, trends and themes.

Identify triggers, trends, and themes: Once you have become aware and have processed your behaviours and thoughts, see if you can identify trends or themes in when you might become more heightened with anxiety, or more dismissive with avoidance. These might relate to how you yourself are feeling at certain points, stressors in the workplace or at home, or how your romantic partner is managing their own stressors or emotions.(Try to) Do the opposite: Take baby steps towards changing some of those interactional patterns that you may notice. For those higher in Anxiety, you may want to notice when your mind begins to wonder to those worst-case scenarios and mentally refrain from going there. Reduce the amount of questioning or reassurance-seeking that you may ask from your romantic partner. For those higher in Avoidance, notice when you begin to distance yourself from your romantic partner or become more reticent with disclosure. Work on communicating more with your partner, even if it’s just about your day at work. Focus on talking about your emotions or explaining the processes behind your thinking.

Some references for the interested:
Hazan, C., & Shaver, P. R. (1987).Romantic love conceptualized as an attachment process. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 52, 511-524.
Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: A test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 226-244.
Bowlby, J. (1977). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. British Journal of Psychiatry, 130, 201-210.
Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. New York., NY: Basic Books.
Brennan, K. A., Clark, C. L., & Shaver, P. R. (1998). Self-report measurement of adult attachment: An integrative overview. In J. A. Simpson & W. S. Rholes (Eds.), Attachment theory and close relationships (pp. 46-76). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Mikulincer, M., & Shaver, P. R. (2007). Attachment in adulthood: Structure, dynamics, and change. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Some interesting websites to read up more on relationships:
http://the-love-compass.com
https://www.luvze.com

Written by:
Dr. Daphne Goh
Clinical Psychologist

A Secure Attachment Bond With Your Child

The developing field of infant mental health, with its emphasis on brain research and the developmental role of parents, provides a clearer understanding of the meaning of a ‘secure attachment bond.

A secure attachment bond is defined as an emotional connection formed between an infant and their primary caretaker. A landmark report, published in 2000 by The Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development, identified how crucial this attachment bond is to a child’s development. The report also mentions that secure attachment bond apparently affects the way a child develops mentally, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. Attachments happen while caring for the baby, but the quality of the attachment bond will depend on the quality of the nonverbal and the verbal communication between the caregiver and the child. It’s not just the infants but older kids do have a need for secure attachment bond.

Obstacles to creating a secure attachment bond may happen when the caregiver is unavailable for reasons like depression anxiety, anger, grief etc. resulting in the child’s,  physical, emotional, and/or intellectual development to suffer. Often daily life distractions like cell phones, computers, social media or urgent emails may prevent a caregiver from paying full attention on the  child, resulting in missing out on opportunities to make contact and engaging in a secure attachment process. When such behaviors continue for lengths of a period, the secure attachment bond does get impacted.

Some tips for building a secure attachments, are continuing to figure out  the child’s needs using verbal and non-verbal cues such as making eye contact –to pick up on the positive emotions conveyed: tone of voice –to differentiate between loving, harsh, indifferent, or preoccupied tones: touch– to convey  emotional state like attentive, calm, disinterested or upset : body language – whether it’s relaxed, anxiuos, defensive or uninterested: pacing, timing, and intensity – pacing, timing, and intensity of your speech, movements, and facial expressions reflect the state of mind. Positive queues cues from the caregiver play a big part in defining the secure attachment bond.

Lastly, in simple words, secure attachment is an ongoing partnership between you and the child, without being a perfect parent. If one notices a disconnect, attempt a repair irrespective of the age of the child. The effort to repair will deepen the trust, increase resiliency, and build a stronger relationship.

Written by

Vinti Mittal
Director SACAC Counselling Pte Ltd
Clinical Member SAC
SAC Registered Counsellor
CMSAC, Reg, CLR, MSc (Counselling), Grad Cert. (Counselling)